August 19, 2011
Obama/Brennan CT Strategy Memo Underscores Stalled Debate
Despite a successful and improving record of effectively countering terrorism, the Obama Administration's recently released strategy memo suggests that the president's team is more interested in engaging in stalled domestic political debates than clearly articulating ways to defeat terrorist threats.
Barack Obama began his tenure as Commander in Chief by ordering the daring sniping of Somali pirates attempting to gouge a hefty ransom out of western oil companies and their insurers. In the next years, his counterterrorism team foiled and weathered multiple plots on Americans, including two failed plots involving commercial jets and another fizzling attempt targeting Times Square. Most recently, Obama directed a special forces unit, Navy Seals Team 6, to carry out the action-cinema-worthy elimination of Osama bin Laden. And all the while, the President has racked up a significant number of terrorist kills using precision drone strikes that, by some credible counts, have not generated an unintended civilian casualty in nearly a year.
Though many of these successes have made headlines, the President has not harped on them, his rivals have ignored or downplayed them, and his political allies to the left have been reluctant to cheer them, instead quietly grumbling to themselves about Obama's failure to implement the entire civil libertarian agenda they had envisioned together during his campaign. As a result, many of the greatest CT successes realized during Obama's watch have enjoyed less news coverage than local issues or mini-scandals like the Casey Anthony verdict or Kanye West's outburst at the Grammy Awards.
Obama's reluctance “to spike the football,” as he put it in response to a reporter's question about why he was not releasing photos of the deceased bin Laden, has played into a strategic communications approach seeking to productively engage with modernizing forces in majority-Muslim countries while undercutting the appeal of anti-western groups there. Thanks to this approach together with surgically-targeted special operations and drone strikes, an endogenous Muslim backlash against al Qaeda, and the timely Arab Spring, the administration finds itself positioned to push the Hirabi theocratic movement over the brink into irrelevance. The most recognized brand of that movement, al Qaeda, apart from when it was ludicrously scapegoated by outgoing Libyan dictator Muomar Ghadaffi, has only made recent news for the defeats it has suffered.
If the trend line continues, al Qaeda will next become an off-brand among a set of increasingly unpopular Hirabi theocratic groups mostly focused on their own national and regional ambitions. Intelligence from bin Laden's compound even shows that he was beginning to doubt the appeal of the brand, apparently considering renaming the loosely networked organization.
In their recently released "National Strategy for Counterterrorism," Obama and his chief CT adviser, John Brennan, touch on several ways they might continue to undermine the appeal of Hirabi terrorism, even itemizing the multiple regionally-dispersed factions of al Qaeda they seek to hive off and eliminate. Kudos.
But their articulation of their strategy is disappointing in its lack of ends/means correspondence.
Instead of concise language explaining, for instance, how policies deepening U.S. legitimacy can be used as weighty cudgels with which to beat down al Qaeda's factions, Obama and Brennan suggest high-minded (and human rights activists might say disingenuous) principles to govern their strategy, present a list of fairly generic 'Overarching Goals,' and then say little specific about the means they would use. Overall, the document, as one colleague aptly put it, is something of a "nothing-burger."
It is possible that the administration simply swung and missed for this particular audience member. Or perhaps it is merely warming up. But it seems most likely that while the team of counterterrorist professionals surrounding Obama has evolved to better handle the real threats of terrorism, his political team has remained enthralled by the same hypothetical debate that erupted on September 12th, 2001 - a debate about whether rights and liberties should be sacrificed if doing so produces better security outcomes.
Security hawks have unequivocally answered in the affirmative. Civil Libertarians have strongly opposed. But there is no credible evidence suggesting that any of the much-debated rights-abusing, extra-legal tactics employed by the U.S. after 9/11 have resulted in better security outcomes. To the contrary, in fact, many have been counterproductive as we have shown in our report "CT Since 9/11."
Dick Cheney's daughter's outfit, Keep America Safe, and their allies continue to provoke these debates because they polarize Americans in a ways favorable to their interests. Civil libertarians and human rights advocates continue to take the bait because they are habitual champions of freedom.
But the President continues to be sucked into these debates at his own electoral peril. His team's counterterrorism efforts are winning. His attempts to boost American legitimacy abroad through word and deed are working. And his efforts to reinforce the eroded 'Rule of Law' -- though hamstrung by a Congress pandering to Americans' fears and a legal community too invested in zero-sum positions to seek win-win solutions (with the notable exceptions of The Constitution Project and NYU's Center on Law and Security - are worth continuing. The legal and effective interrogation of Warsame and his coming trial in a traditional criminal court will likely help many Americans understand the superiority of our ancient and modern legal system over an ad hoc tribunal system treating terrorists as the peers of our military officers.
With all that the Obama CT team has done and is doing, he is better off letting his record speak for itself than engaging in the stalled hypothetical debate about America's supposed balancing of its principles and safety. Sacrificing those principles has not yet saved an American life or foiled a terrorist plot. But valorizing them just suggests to Americans that the President would be willing (in a hypothetical world) to let people die in the name of a liberal creed many citizens, frankly, would happily see whittled away to be free from the worry of terrorism. In future strategy memos and speeches, Obama's team would do well to simply focus on what works to counterterrorism. Sure, it so happens that what works also respects rights and builds the long-term legitimacy of the U.S. and the 'Rule of Law.' But, that's not the point. The CT strategy almost all Americans want is quite simply the one that works.